I took one for the team last night. I’ve been as vocal as anyone on Facebook about my feelings surrounding this Common Core Math we’re doing. I’ve been watching – and participating in – the many posts degrading it as stupid and ridiculous, accusing it of dumbing down our kids and/or turning them into sheep. I’ve been particularly concerned by my own attitude – because every time I look at this math and don’t know where to start, my instinct is to curse and complain and in frustration tell my daughter I can’t help her because I don’t understand it. My tantrums aren’t helping her learn. And I realized I didn’t want to be responsible for turning her off of math, or giving her an excuse not to try harder.
But first – let me preface by saying that long before we moved here, before I ever heard the words “Common Core,” Todd would tell me how great the education system was in Maryland by comparison to PA. I did a bit of research on the matter and found Maryland to be ranked #1 by Education Week for the last 5 years. This year – 2014 – Maryland cannot hold that claim, since this “most comprehensive ranking of the nation’s schools” has stopped ranking states, but still ranks among the top-performing schools in the country. Just for kicks, I also looked up PA’s rank last year – 2013 – since my kids were still being educated there at that time. PA ranked 18th. Here’s a link to the report: 2013 State Report Cards.
I have not been disappointed by the education my kids are getting thus far. I am, however, somewhat concerned by my daughter’s grades – especially this year – as they seem to cover the spectrum from A to E with no predictable pattern. I don’t know if this is a flaw in the system, or a reflection of my daughter’s ability to take tasks seriously and focus. We’ll be watching this.
Anyway, back to the classroom. This year the 4th grade teachers sent home a math packet for the year, called Partners for Student Success (yeah – who are they kidding?), outlining concepts they will be learning in each unit, as a guide for parents as we navigate the slippery math slope together. I looked it over. The concepts looked familiar. Nothing I haven’t seen before. So far so good. But that’s where the familiarity ends.
Each week a homework paper comes home, where the concepts they are learning over the week are laid out. Since the material is simultaneously being taught, she has until the end of the week to complete it. This is where things go south really fast. It’s not enough that the techniques for solving the problems elude me. Ava needs someone to sit with her through each and every problem. And then she acts like she has no clue whatsoever about what we’re doing. For me – a self-professed math hater – this is maddening. It’s the simple stuff, like confusing subtraction and addition… or guessing an answer that is right there in front of her. Imagine asking someone, what is 5 x 5? and their answer is um, I don’t know…5? No – 20! Wait, 10? See where I’m going with this?
Along came a paper one day, announcing Parents Math Night. I was all in. I couldn’t wait to see what they’ve been teaching them and how. I couldn’t wait to sit in a room with other confused parents like myself. I expected to hear some complaints. I was anxious to hear other parents decry the death of “old school” math. I wanted to see this Common Core from my daughter’s position, as the student. I wanted to give it a chance, or laugh about how ridiculous it all is. I was bracing for the blog post of the year.
This night was divided into grades – each meeting in a different classroom – and there were 2 sessions. Which, by the way, was a good idea seeing as how it was scheduled on the same night and time as the middle school conference night.
So I went. I chose the 2nd session since I had planned to attend the aforementioned conflicting event. I arrived just as the 1st session was finishing up. There were maybe a dozen parents in there. In my session there were three. Including me. Wait – there were 2 including me, until a dad walked in about halfway through. THREE. Add that to the 1st session, and that’s about 15 – for the entire 4th grade. Out of x-number of 4th graders, only fifteen parents who had the time to come and were as confused by Common Core math as the rest of the nation and have kids who don’t have a clue either. So, does that mean the rest of them are doing fine?
Nevertheless, the four 4th grade teachers essentially conducted a lesson on the current topics – area models for multiplication, partial products method for multiplication, and area models for division. I had helped Ava with her homework for half of this stuff the previous week, and had viewed the links provided by the teachers, so I understood what they were demonstrating to us – the parents. But – and feel free to cringe along with me – they also asked us what the answers were as they went along. I found myself catapulted back to my own school days, when being called on in math class was a fate worse than death. BUT – this time I knew the answer. I waited for the other mom to speak up. She didn’t. Coward. So then, not wanting the teachers to feel bad – I answered the questions. And felt my face redden (I hate this). Lord. I was relieved when “dad” finally showed up, so he could take some of the heat. Which was a good thing, because they lost me about halfway through the division part and apparently I lack a poker face because the teacher says aloud, “I see confusion?” Shit. Red face redux.
And again, back to my school days – where the last thing I wanted to do was raise a hand and say I don’t get it, because I already knew I wasn’t going to get it, and no amount of explaining was going to get me there – and especially not in front of a room full of my peers. So, 20-odd years later… I smiled and said, I’m just taking it in slowly. What?! Wtf was that? Who says that? And then I looked down at my white puffy coat on my lap and noticed the cuffs were black. OMG – I need to wash this coat. It’s filthy. So embarrassing. And my brain is off and running – far, far away from math. Just like the old days.
I posted on Facebook before I left that I was “taking one for the team,” and now here I am ruminating over a dirty winter coat I just yanked out of the back of the closet, and trying not to chew on my cuticles after I just got done telling Ava’s teacher that Ava has a bad habit of biting her nails, and feeling that old familiar, primal need to be invisible in math class. But the most shocking part of the evening? I actually understood what they were saying. It made sense to me. ME. The girl who couldn’t make the honor roll for 3 years because of math, whose Algebra teacher in 9th grade told her mother she would never need math anyway because she was – wait for it – a girl, and who took 3 math classes in college just to qualify for a degree (there’s a story behind this one – for another day).
It actually made sense. The teachers explained to us how the processes these kids are using to get to the answers are actually helping them understand HOW they get the answers. It made sense to me. And, on the drive home, I found myself wondering whether I would have done better in math had I taken Common Core. Yes – I really just said that. Because I’m such a blockhead in math, perhaps a more convoluted method may have actually penetrated the atrophied left hemisphere. However, being old school and not a great proponent of “change,” I still wonder what the hell was wrong with the old way? At least then we’d actually be able to help our kids without getting angry (at Common Core, and the government, and – what the hell – Obama, cause everything is his fault anyway, right?), and without having to watch math videos since many of us don’t have time for that.
When the dad asked if there would be more math nights, the teachers answered that it was something they’re hoping to do. I don’t know – I hope they don’t base their decision on this attendance. I don’t know how many showed up for the other grades, but judging by the look of the parking lot, I’d say not many. Which is disheartening. We have 698 students in the elementary school, and less than 20% of the parents attended. How can we complain about Common Core if we aren’t willing to step up and represent? Anybody can go on social media and bitch – myself included. Parents need to demand districts to do their part with more parent education nights, or at the very least provide educational links we can access in our own time, dedicated to helping us to be partners in education, not alienated. And if we want to exact change, we need to address the school board, not shoot the messengers. Our teachers are charged with a mighty responsibility, and none of them were brought up the Common Core way either. Case in point: I watched our four teachers drawing up the lesson and more than once one of them would ask the others if they presented it right. Hmmm.
In summary, while I am grateful for the Parents’ Math Night and am hopeful for others, I am still not a Common Core convert. I still subscribe to the old adage, “if it aint broke, don’t fix it.” Our kids were all doing just fine. My son, who is in the 8th grade (and, admittedly, a math wizard), has looked at Ava’s homework as perplexed as me. His words – “it looks like they’re trying to make it more complicated.” I agree. And it's way more time consuming. But, at the same time, I get what they’re trying to do. Is it necessary? Will it really reach more children and promote better understanding and foundation for the more advanced concepts imminent in middle school? Only time will tell.